Exiled Among Nations: German and Mennonite Mythologies in a Transnational Age is an impressive history of two Mennonite colonies in the Paraguayan Chaco — Menno and Fernheim — during their contentious first two decades.
During the interwar period, when these two colonies formed (Menno, established by 1,800 migrants from Canada, and Fernheim, by 2,000 refugees from the Soviet Union), they followed different trajectories in local decision-making and in responding to the governments and aid organizations that engaged them.
These groups of Mennonites came to the remote Gran Chaco in quick succession, out of very different contexts. In the late 1920s, separatist Mennonites, dissatisfied with the Canadian government’s mandates for public education and by neighboring Mennonites’ perceived worldliness, arrived voluntarily. Paraguayan government officials welcomed the founders of Menno Colony.
Significantly, Eicher notes that the Mennonites leading this group were “intensely interested in the weather, farming, industry and transportation. They were correspondingly less interested in the country’s culture, history and politics.”
The Menno colonists’ separatist worldviews remained consistent over the next 15 years, as they benefited from the privileges offered them but resisted national identification with Paraguay.
Meanwhile, in the late 1920s, thousands of Mennonites were being uprooted by the Soviet government’s purges. As refugees, these individuals moved through Germany, Poland and China en route to new homes. Many of them had hoped to land in Canada. But financial support offered by the German government, augmented by assistance from Mennonite Central Committee, led them to settle in the Paraguayan Chaco where they established Fernheim (meaning “distant home”), just northwest of Menno Colony.
Their status as refugees brought media attention to their plight and made them the target for overtures from governments and aid organizations with widely divergent purposes. Like many people forced into traumatic circumstances, they represented a broad mix in religiosity and class status.
The Fernheimers’ first decades in Paraguay would be marked by far less stability than neighboring Menno’s. Eicher argues convincingly that the Fernheim colonists, who lacked citizenship, “faced the existential dilemma of transforming their individual tragedies into a shared narrative.”
Two chapters at the heart of this book, one on efforts by MCC to shore up the struggling Fernheim Colony, and another on the grafting of Nazi ideology onto some aspects of Fernheim life, offer rich ground for Eicher’s analysis of diasporic experience, religious identity and nationalist aims. While the strains and stresses faced by colonists in a difficult environment (including a harsh climate and military upheavals during the Chaco War) are well documented, Eicher’s larger interest is the way in which these Mennonite diasporic groups rejected possible identities thrust their way by competing national interests and by North American Mennonite leaders with agendas of their own.
This book’s appearance is timely, coinciding with the centennial of MCC and augmenting recent scholarship and conferences focused on Mennonite historical interweaving with Nazism. During the 1930s, when the American Mennonite leader Harold Bender and other MCC representatives traveled to Paraguay, they encountered indifference from Menno colonists who rejected MCC’s vision of Mennonite unity.
Further, MCC leaders faced skepticism from Fernheim colonists unconvinced by notions of an Anabaptist future imbued with democratic values and optimism.
But a portion of the Fernheim colonists, led by the teacher Friedrich Kliewer, proved more amenable to the interest showed by a German group, the Association for Germandom Abroad, which promoted transnational solidarity and encouraged the formation of pro-Nazi Jungendbund (youth organizations). Exiled Among Nations provides convincing evidence of why many Fernheimers latched on to Nazi ideology and how continuing conflicts among colony leaders minimized MCC’s influence in Paraguay until the mid-1940s.
For both its contribution to 20th-century Mennonite history and broader implications for migration studies, this book deserves wide readership. Its language is laced with metaphors: “Menno Colony Mennonites viewed the Chaco as a place where they could recreate their local culture until the next plot twist sent them packing. Pessimistic Fernheimers believed that the Chaco was a prison, while optimists argued that God wanted them to create a garden in the wilderness.” “[Meanwhile,] the Paraguayan government looked on the venture as Manifest Destiny on the cheap.”
In addition to Eicher’s assured and thoughtful analysis, colony maps from Ukraine, Canada and Paraguay, as well as photos spanning the first half of the 20th century, enhance the book.
Rachel Waltner Goossen teaches history at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.